Carry on up the Cyber!

The British Army may finally acquire new backpack and vehicular EW systems to replace legacy assets it uses for this important mission.

Two new UK government papers show how the UK’s armed forces and the country’s wider defence industrial community will strive to win electromagnetic supremacy in future wars.

Originally scheduled for publication in early 2020 the UK Government’s review of foreign and security policy entitled Global Britain in a Competitive Age finally hit the streets on 16th March. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic caused publication to be delayed several times as government efforts were understandably directed elsewhere. The review articulates the UK’s foreign and security priorities three months after she finally crashed out of the European Union following the referendum of her continued membership in 2016.

Of particular interest to Armada is what the document says about the strategic, operational and tactical importance of the electromagnetic spectrum; an environment of ever-growing significance to the military and civilian worlds alike. In the review’s foreword Prime Minister Boris Johnson waxes lyrical on the need for the UK to gird herself for challenges in the cyber domains. The review promises that the country will be “one of the world’s leading democratic cyber powers.” Allied to this is a promise to ensure that the UK remains a leading science and technology power. This is a sine qua non if the country’s armed forces are to win and maintain Electromagnetic Superiority and Supremacy (E2S) in future conflicts.

National Cyber Force

Rightly, the document discusses the importance of protecting the country and British interests from cyberattack, but what about the UK’s ability to wage cyber warfare? The review highlights the National Cyber Force (NCF). Established in 2020, the NCF draws together experts from the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, responsible for foreign intelligence gathering, the Ministry of Defence, the Government Communications Headquarters which collects Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

One of the roles mooted for the NCF, alongside disrupting the use of cellular communications for political violence and preventing the use of cyberspace for serious crime, is the role the NCF will play in “keeping UK military aircraft safe from targeting by weapons systems.” Is this a euphemism for cyberattack being harnessed against hostile Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) and deployed Ground-Based Air Defences (GBAD)? If so, this represents an important enhancement to the UK’s offensive counter-air capabilities at the operational and strategic levels. Future conflicts could see the NCF cyberattacking enemy IADS and GBAD in support of unilateral and multilateral operations.

The review says that the country will make offensive cyber capabilities available to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) under the terms of NATO’s Article Five. This clause of the Alliance’s founding North Atlantic Treaty pledges that an attack on one member is treated as an attack on all with the NCF’s offensive cyber capabilities being used to “to detect, disrupt and deter our adversaries.” Interestingly, the review reveals that the UK is now in possession of offensive cyber capabilities which have been built up over the past decade.

While Global Britain in a Competitive Age articulates the country’s strategic outlook, the Defence Command Paper, published several days later on 22nd March detailed the government’s procurement priorities: “The electromagnetic environment … is a fundamental aspect of the modern battlespace,” says the paper, warning that “our adversaries are increasingly active across it and rely on it. We must be able to understand, exploit and secure advantage in this environment.” Underscoring these concerns, the government will earmark $689 million for “capabilities that will enable us to respond in the electromagnetic environment.” This will include $276 million for the British Army to get new Electronic Warfare (EW) and SIGINT capabilities, along with new personnel who will fight in the electromagnetic spectrum.


This could mean the reactivation of the army’s dormant Landseeker programme. Landseeker was conceived in the wake of the earlier Soothsayer EW initiative. Soothsayer was cancelled in 2009 after costs rose to $333 million in 2020 values. It was to have provided a light SIGINT collection capability, reportedly based on a Supacat six-wheel drive vehicle to equip the British Army’s element of the UK Joint Rapid Reaction Force along with the Royal Marines’ 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group. Soothsayer was also to have had a heavy element to outfit vehicles procured via the British Army’s former Future Rapid Effects System.

Getting Landseeker moving and into the hands of the troops is imperative if the UK’s desire to win and sustain E2S is to be underwritten, particularly in light of new EW capabilities rolled out across the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in recent years. Another concern is that Landseeker in its current form appears solely focused on electronic support with no plans to supplement this with an electronic attack capability. This is a something which sources close to the British Army’s EW community say is desperately needed, particularly if cyber effects are going to be used on the battlefield at the operational and tactical levels, not only to support the British Army and sister services, but also to support allies during coalition operations. This has added impetus as the MOD published the UK’s CEMA (Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities) doctrine in 2018 framing how the UK would manoeuvre in the spectrum.

To summarise, the British Army has circa $270 million to procure these mooted EW capabilities, once one removes circa $5 million to cover the promised recruitment of new CEMA cadres. Soothsayer was cancelled after its costs reached $333 million. The army has less money to play with to procure a capability that will must eclipse the SIGINT-only remit of Landseeker, if the force is to acquire the wherewithal for electronic attack. Russia is the security challenge which both documents do not shirk from highlighting. She is performing her own important enhancements in digital command and control. Thus one struggles to see how the British Army could achieve E2S without such a capability? Yet desiring electronic attack from Landseeker’s successor risks adding significant costs, potentially beyond the $270 million expected to be available. How will this capability be secured on budget? By seeking to procure EW platforms from the UK’s French and US allies, both of which are furnishing their armies with new electronic attack capabilities? Through the domestic development of such assets, or through a hybrid approach where the UK buys systems from abroad, before configuring them for local requirements? A government seeking to keep the UK defence science and technology base invigorated, while balancing the books may decide that the latter option is preferable.


This defence science and technology base could be integral to the acquisition of such capabilities. The Global Britain publication says that this sector could get a fillip with the establishment of the Advanced Research and Inventions Agency (ARIA), modelled on the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. This will perform high-risk “breakthrough” research which could yield innovations helping the UK’s armed forces’ quest to win E2S. Another important aspect will be the establishment of the National Security Strategic Investment Fund and the National Security and Technology Information Exchange. Both these government initiatives are to exploit dual-use technologies and to drive forward efforts like Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is fast emerging as one of the most important technologies in electronic warfare. Likewise, quantum computing holds promise for EW applications and could benefit from the efforts of the National Quantum Computing Centre and the National Quantum Technologies Programme.

Released back-to-back, both the Defence Command Paper and the review are clear statements of how the UK’s armed forces will fight and prevail in the electromagnetic spectrum. Building on the CEMA Joint Doctrine Note, both these new publications show the direction of travel for the UK’s desire to win and secure E2S in tomorrow’s battles. Now the hard work begins. With intentions explained the government must secure the people and assets such desires demand.

by Dr. Thomas Withington